Orlando Sentinel, August 2, 2003

Episcopal leaders will let delegates vote on gay bishop

By Mark I. Pinsky
Sentinel Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite strong words of opposition from Central Florida's Bishop John Howe and other conservatives in the Episcopal Church, USA, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire inched closer Friday to confirmation as the denomination's first openly gay bishop.

Robinson's confirmation would amount to "a massive change in the teachings of this church," Howe told members of the Committee on the Consecration of Bishops.

Appointment of an openly gay bishop "flies in the face of Scripture, tradition and reason," said the Rev. Donald Curran of St. Barnabas Church in DeLand.

Nevertheless, after a tense morning hearing, the Committee on the Consecration of Bishops decided to let delegates to its general convention vote on whether Robinson should be confirmed as a bishop.

Lay leaders and priests, who make up the convention's House of Deputies, will vote on Robinson on Sunday afternoon. If they confirm him, the House of Bishops will vote on his appointment Monday.

The Episcopal committee's move comes amid a firestorm of debate about gay rights and gay marriage sparked by the Supreme Court's June 26 ruling striking down states' sodomy laws. The controversial decision raised hopes among gays that same-sex marriage might become a reality in the United States. But opponents of gay marriage have moved swiftly to derail any hopes of that happening.

President Bush weighed in Wednesday with a call to "codify" marriage as a union between a man and a woman. On Thursday, the Vatican issued a stinging denunciation of homosexuality and warned Roman Catholic lawmakers that voting to legalize same-sex marriage would be "gravely immoral."

 

Same-sex unions

Delegates to the Episcopal convention also are debating whether to develop a ritual for blessing same-sex unions. More than 750 people packed a hotel meeting room Friday night as a committee debated whether to recommend passage of a blessing for same-sex unions or to study the issue further.

"We can be a thriving church whose members disagree on the issue of homosexuality," said Samuel Candler, dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. "Do not fear. God has brought the Christian church through far bumpier flights."

But the Rev. Kendall Harmon of the diocese of South Carolina warned that if a same-sex blessing passes, "it will shatter the Episcopal Church."

The outcome of the debates is being closely monitored by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the American church is a part.

If Robinson is confirmed by the church's lay leaders and bishops, or if same-sex unions are approved, leaders of the Anglican Communion have threatened to break relations with the American Episcopal Church.

Some conservative U.S. bishops, such as Howe, have suggested that such a break could cause a rupture in the 2.4 million member Episcopal Church, USA. The possibility has been raised that conservative dioceses, and even parishes, might declare their allegiance to breakaway African, Asian and South American churches.

After the committee's decision to allow a vote on Robinson, Howe acknowledged that he may be fighting a holding action. Robinson's confirmation is "probable," but the vote will be "closer than people thought," he said.

 

'Definitive moment'

Experts said Friday that other mainline Protestant denominations have a stake in what happens in Minneapolis.

There's no question," said Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Columbia University. "It's such a divisive issue. Issues of sexuality are so charged."

Partisans and opponents of greater inclusion of gays in church life have been active in the Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. However, none of these denominations has gone as far as the Episcopal Church, either in naming an openly gay candidate for bishop or in holding close votes on same-sex unions. At the church's 1997 general convention in Philadelphia, approval of same-sex unions was narrowly defeated.

"The Episcopal Church is in the midst of soul-wrenching and multidecade debate about human sexuality," Bishop Edward Little of the Diocese of Northern Indiana said Friday.

"If we confirm Canon Robinson as bishop, that conversation is over. We will have decided once and for all that homosexual practice is an appropriate practice for Christians," Little said. "There will be no turning back. It will be a definitive moment."

 

'Clarity' needed

But Balmer predicted that cooler heads will ultimately prevail and that there will be no split within the Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church, USA.

"Institutions are fundamentally concerned with their own preservation and perpetuation," said the author of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism.

And not all of the attention on the actions in Minneapolis is negative, according to a researcher who has just completed a study of the Episcopal Church.

"The other mainline churches are paying attention to the Episcopal Church for a variety of reasons," said Diana Butler Bass, a research fellow at Virginia Theological Seminar and author of Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community.

Bass found that, in contrast with other mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church has actually recorded some small but measurable gains in membership since it has become known for its support of women in the pulpit and for its recent "reputation for being the most friendly denomination to gays."

The difficulty for Episcopalians, as with all mainline Protestant denominations, is that when they meet they send out mixed signals about the way they feel on gay issues.

"We've been muddled in our national policy, as Episcopalians and as mainline denominations as a whole," Bass said. "We are both open and closed at the same time. That is not a position we can sustain. Some sense of clarity has to emerge on these issues."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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